High School Civics Teacher Lee Francis Punished for a Living Lesson in Flag Protest
September 26, 2016 | Revolution Newspaper | revcom.us
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Lee Francis is a civics teacher at Massey Hill Classical High School in Fayetteville, North Carolina. On September 19, as part of a lesson on the First Amendment, he stepped on the U.S. flag—which became a huge incident in the media. As part of the lesson, he mentioned the 1989 Texas v. Johnson Supreme Court case that established that burning a U.S. flag in political protest is protected speech.
When Gregory “Joey” Johnson—the defendant in that Supreme Court flag-burning case—heard about Lee Francis, Johnson immediately contacted him. In Cleveland this July, Joey Johnson with the support of the Revolution Club burned the flag outside the Republican National Convention—saying in response to Trump’s “Make America great again” poison that “America was NEVER great” and that “It’s always BEEN first: at genocide, at slavery, exploitation, destruction of the environment, torture, coup d’états, invasions... we’re standing here with the people of the world today.” Joey Johnson and others were brutally assaulted by the police and arrested for this legal political protest. There is a campaign now to demand that the charges be dropped against Joey Johnson and the RNC 16.
The following is Joey Johnson’s interview for www.revcom.us with Lee Francis, edited for publication.
Joey Johnson: Hi, Lee, How are you?
Lee Francis: I’m fine.
JJ: Could you describe what you did?
LF: I was teaching a lesson leading into the American Revolution and, the long story short, I took out the flag as kind of a teaching tool. We were talking about Texas v. Johnson, about some of the founding documents that would lead to the American Revolution and would lead to the documents that would be the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights and to the Constitution. So we’re teaching about those things, and I pulled out the flag. And I placed it on the ground, and I just stepped on it somewhat gratuitously. And immediately two students stood up and walked out of the room, and the second student comes over to take the flag as he leaves.
JJ: And about how many students were in the class?
LF: There was a total of about 26 students in class.
JJ: And what was the response of the rest of them, the other 24? (laughs)
LF: Actually a very positive response. We actually continued the discussion after the two students left and I had a very good discussion with them tying it to a lot of issues that we’re facing today as far as freedom of speech and some limitations on that. I received emails, and Facebook notes, and letters from students who had even been interviewed and they said, we stand by him and we understand what the lesson was.
JJ: So you said the response from the class overall was positive—they didn’t have the kneejerk rejection of it that these two students did.
LF: That’s correct.
JJ: What inspired you to take this particular approach?
LF: It was really something that was really more spontaneous. Students didn’t know that there were other forms of speech outside of what could be written or what could be spoken. And so, harkening back to the [Texas v. Johnson] case where the flag was in flames, I said you could even step on the flag, and this is an example of symbolic speech, freedom of expression. And so it wasn’t something that I sat down and spent a week planning to do, or saying now I’m gonna use this particular flag, and do it this particular way. It was a very spontaneous teachable moment that I noticed my kids, for the majority, comprehended and understood and appreciated.
It really was something that was a spur of the moment, spontaneous teaching moment that was politically charged and definitely was not meant to be offensive to anyone. And it’s unfortunate that a lot of the military community find that the act was offensive. But what really my intent was, was to give a teachable demonstration, a visual demonstration, of what other kinds of speech, as Americans, we are afforded. And in that regard, it is ironic that I had been labeled a “terrorist” and called “unAmerican.” Someone had gone as far as to say that I was a “pedophile” because I had “harassed” children. And so it wasn’t anything that was politically charged, or anything that was really thought out beyond that moment of teaching.
JJ: All of that is really outrageous. They’ve brought you up on disciplinary charges, suspended you from school at this point, right?
LF: Absolutely. I am suspended with pay and that can extend up to 90 days. [Editor’s note: Toward the end of their conversation, Lee Francis received a phone call informing him that he would be suspended for 10 days without pay.] The ironic thing is that the district attorney, who I spoke to, denied filing charges and has said I was well within my rights to do what I did, so my question is why the suspension? I am not sure what ground the suspension falls upon... I’m not sure what grounds termination falls upon. I don’t know the justification for any of this. And based on what I have read in my notice of suspension, and even in the meeting that I’ve had with several folks involved in the central office, no one is actually able to clearly define what I did wrong. And so I am questioning the grounds for suspension and all of these things as they come.
JJ: I really wanted to reach out to you as soon as I heard about this. There was an article, a press account that said you were pivoting off the decision in Texas v. Johnson, my Supreme Court case, which was a victory that was hard fought for. And what’s happened to you is just more evidence of it being frequently violated, even though there’s a Supreme Court decision. In my case it says there’s a right for people to do what’s called symbolic speech, and that is to burn the American flag in protest, or to step on it for that matter, or to do things with it artistically that provoke people’s thinking in terms of the content of the symbolism. But there’s still in over 40 states criminal statutes against “flag desecration” or use of the flag in protest. I just think it’s completely outrageous what happened with you, for somebody demonstrating a right that has been upheld by the Supreme Court, for giving a living civics lesson, you know, and they want to punish you like this. I think it would be important for you to talk about what you had mentioned before—the death threats and other intimidation and what’s been going on around that.
LF: Absolutely. I actually started receiving threats as soon as I found out that the photo and the post went viral. [Editor’s note: One of the students who walked out of class had taken a picture and posted it on social media.] I was out of school. This was probably late Monday evening that I realized that there was an issue. I received death threats from those in the military that are currently serving in the military. I have received death threats from all over the country—from Nevada, Boston, Alabama, Louisiana, every state you can imagine, I received death threats. Just last night, I received a death threat that had my address and my phone number, my contact information. The newspaper has printed some of the death threats that I’ve received. And it’s unfortunate that that’s the way people feel that they can get their point across. It’s very unfortunate that not only myself has received death threats, but my students have received death threats. Others in the school system have received death threats and that’s unfortunate. That’s very inappropriate. Because this was never intended to offend or disrespect anyone.
I have most respect for our men and women in the military. I come from a very long line of military family. I find it a bit ironic that we can celebrate 9/11 and the chorus/refrain “never forget.” But when we talk about the issues of Native Americans, or that Blacks are facing in the country at the hands of the police, or the women that are being raped on a daily basis and their rapists are walking free, the song changes to “when are you going to get over it”—we have a child molester in Fayetteville and he’s walking around—these are the larger issues out there that really need to be brought to the forefront. The flag as it is, is a piece of fabric. The larger issues are the issues of racism, are the issues that are tearing at the fabric of this country.
JJ: What’s the reality of what that cloth, that symbol, is flying over? Myself, I think people in the military need to be told the truth just like everybody else. What the U.S. has been doing in the Middle East is not a glorious cause. It’s been a war for empire. There’s millions of lives that have been shattered in a whole arc of countries from Afghanistan to Tunisia, from Somalia to Syria. It’s over empire. And people’s lives don’t mean anything, including all those people who have died for the empire, you know. Soldiers need to be told the truth about what they’ve been fighting and dying for. I just think that’s important.
What you’ve done has provoked an enormous conversation not just in Fayetteville. I very much feel it’s linked up with what’s happened in Charlotte over the last several nights, the uprising of the people there against yet once again another blatant police murder of a Black man, of Brother Scott. It’s just outrageous, man, that they’re trying to subject you to this kind of harassment and terror, and intimidation. I am really glad you are not succumbing to it and not being cowed by it, intimidated by it, but standing up and taking this back out to society and arguing and having a big societal conversation and debate and struggle over it.
LF: It does get to the fact that there are larger issues. I never intended to be on this stage. When I did that lesson, I was expecting to have a good discussion and come back the next day and talk about something else. But now that I’m here, I think it would be irresponsible of me not to really talk about, and to bring back to the forefront of our lives that the issue is much bigger than the piece of cloth. And with all due respect to that symbol, and for how people see it, we have to realize that we have to value human life, and we don’t. Innocent children are being shot and killed by police, and women are being raped and told to get over it.... There was an incident I believe at University of Chapel Hill where a football player was accused of raping a young lady, and she has been trying to get justice for months. And they have quietly pushed her aside. It’s very unfortunate that these are issues that people refuse to talk about.
JJ: I think it would be interesting if you talked about how you started out as a Young
Republican, going to an all-white school.
LF: Yeah, you know it’s funny, this young man [Editor’s note: Lee is referring to the student who took the photo of the flag lesson and posted it], this rabble-rouser, has been hailed now as a patriot... and everyone is saying that this is the kind of role model we need... I was in an all-white school. I was a member of student government; I was president of the Republican organization for two years. But I didn’t know anything. It was a way for me to fit in. It was a way for me to make friends. It was a way for me not to be singled out as one of the Black kids in an all-white school. So it was interesting that I had this perspective, but it wasn’t until I got to college, to graduate school, that I really started reading things by Althusser, Foucault, bell hooks, and Judith Butler that are really talking about a different issue and my paradigm shifted.
JJ: Is there anything that you want to say about what you want people to do to support you?
LF: Continue spreading the message. Get on Facebook and talk about these issues that are affecting people—not just talk about the flag, but that are really affecting people, that are changing lives, that are destroying lives, as we’ve seen in Charlotte, as we see in Tulsa. We need to stand up and make sure that our voices are being heard. If a presidential candidate can walk out on Fifth Avenue and shoot someone and not lose a vote we shouldn’t just sit down and be okay with that. We got to stand up and not be afraid to stay there and not back down. First Amendment, must defend it.
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